GWEN IFILL: Chris Christie apologizes; Robert Gates confesses, and Democrats and Republicans debate income inequality, tonight on “Washington Week.”
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ): (From tape.) I am who I am, but I am not a bully.
MS. IFILL: Chris Christie, the tough talking hands-on New Jersey governor who has his eye on the White House, says he was betrayed.
GOV. CHRISTIE: (From tape.) I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.
MS. IFILL: In a story straight out of a Hollywood script about politics, revenge and ambition, Christie takes center stage.
JOHN WISNEWSKI [NJ Assembly Deputy Speaker]: (From tape.) As a result of what has been revealed today, this governor has a lot of explaining to do.
MS. IFILL: While in Washington, another larger than life figure, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, lobs direct hits at his former boss and at the vice president.
JAY CARNEY [White House Press Secretary]: (From tape.) The president absolutely wants tough questions asked on matters of national security. He wants advisers to be blunt and candid.
MS. IFILL: But this blunt? This candid? This soon?
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, lawmakers debate the best way to close the income gap, but they can’t agree to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They’re not lacking in motivation. They’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From tape.) It’s only when you believe government is the answer to all of your problems that you talk about unemployment insurance instead of job creation.
MS. IFILL: Fifty years after the launch of the war on poverty. Covering the week: John Dickerson of Slate magazine and CBS News, Peter Baker of the New York Times, Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, and Beth Reinhard of National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. For a long, long time, their reputations were soaring. Democrats loved Republican Chris Christie and they had not a bad word to say about former defense secretary and Bush holdover Robert Gates. That cross-party love affair faded a bit for both men this week. Gates become the first Obama cabinet member to publish a critical assessment of the president while Mr. Obama remains in office.
And Christie, more spectacularly, fired or pushed aside close advisers who apparently conspired to create a massive – get this – North Jersey traffic jam just to hurt political enemies. It played out in a nearly two-hour mea culpa in which Christie’s blunt personality was on full display.
GOV. CHRISTIE: (From tape.) I have very heated discussions and arguments with people in my own party and on the other side of the aisle. I feel passionately about issues and I don’t hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate, or governor.
MS. IFILL: That, of course, was what many people like about him. But what caught my ear right then was that he referred to himself as a candidate, little pause, then as a governor. So what did that press conference tell us about the kind of candidate or governor or leader that Chris Christie is and will be?
JOHN DICKERSON: Well, I mean, for two hours, it told us almost everything but his Social Security number. Remember the stakes here, which is that he won this big victory in a blue state. There were a lot of powerful Republicans in 2012 who tried to get him to run because they thought he was the future and savior of the party. And he was seen after this big victory in re-election in 2013 as somebody who had a very strong shot at winning the presidency.
Now, all of the traits that made him popular, all of the things that made him so authentic, his toughness and his bluntness, now have perhaps a darker edge. And there was always a kind of a two sides to Chris Christie. His opponents always said that he was a bully, that his frankness and his toughness were really – kind of went overboard. And this scandal threatens that.
And so what you saw for two hours was his attempt to do two things: one, show that he wasn’t a bully. He refused to say that he was angry. He said someday he might be but there was nothing you were going to get from that press conference that suggested he had a hair trigger and was at all vindictive, because that would perhaps link him with this petty act of vindictiveness.
And the other thing he tried to do was rebuild his credibility because he said that he didn’t know anything about this traffic jam and that no one in his staff did. And that turned out to be wrong.
MS. IFILL: But isn’t that part of his credibility, the fact that he didn’t know anything about it and he is supposed to be the guy? These were among his closest aides and advisors?
MR. DICKERSON: Two issues here: one is whether he was lying. He doesn’t want that to be the case. He’s willing to – he’s willing to cop to being out of the loop, to being ignorant of what his aides were doing, which is not great –
MS. IFILL: And there’s no evidence – there’s no evidence to the contrary.
MR. DICKERSON: No evidence to the contrary, but it’s better to be seen as being ignorant than you knew that you shut down the most – the busiest bridge in the world because of the smallest, tiny – and we’re not really quick sure what the act of vindictiveness here was. The going theory, but it’s a wobbly one, is that they were – basically the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, wasn’t going to endorse Christie. Christie, a Republican, was trying to get Democrats to kind of run up his score in that victory. The Fort Lee mayor wouldn’t endorse. This was punishment. That’s pretty small – that’s a pretty small attack.
PETER BAKER: And what’s interesting is that, obviously, Democrats, of course, pounced on this. You know, they said this is indicative of a bully, of a candidate who shouldn’t be trusted with power. But if you listen hard enough, it wasn’t just the Democrats you hear chiming in here, was it?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s right. Republicans – there were a couple of things. One, when they saw Christie come out and take charge – he apologized, he took responsibility, he fired people. He said, I’m going to keep working on this issue until I found out what the real answers are – first, Republicans said, wow, that’s refreshing. That act of crisis management is a real contrast to President Obama, and so they used it for political point scoring. And that’s what Christie hopes, which is that he’d rather the story be about his crisis management response than the underlying crisis.
But Republicans who are backing him are quite nervous because they’re worried another shoe might drop, that he’s claimed – he said that he had nothing to do with this. Well, if there’s any drop of a chance that he did, he’s doomed. And then, also, the suggestion might be that he had – he created a culture in which this could happen underneath him. So they’re saving their powder or the conservatives who never liked Christie are having a delightful time. They’re happy that this person – this will add some difficulty to him as he continues to go forward and so you hear a lot of people off the record at the moment really sort of delighting in this because he has a lot of enemies. And, finally, he’s been a tough guy who’s gone out there and made some enemies, both as governor and when he was U.S. attorney.
ED O’KEEFE: Do you have a sense, John, that Republicans west of the Delaware River really care about this and that we would be just as focused on it were it someone like Governor Scott Walker or Bobby Jindal in Louisiana?
MR. DICKERSON: It is very bad to have a screenplay-like scandal near a major media market. I mean, that’s his problem. And also, much of Christie’s kind of – the love affair with Christie is some people engaged in that love affair are major executives at television networks who like him. I mean, he is a cinematic figure. And this is the good and the bad of Chris Christie. And it’s what it was on display in that press conference, which is he’s got this something in politics we don’t see much that plays well on TV, that plays well in the political theater. And that’s the good side of him, and the bad side, of course, is that that can be a little rough and brusque for some people.
BETH REINHARD: You joked that we learned everything about him but his Social Security number. But what did we learn about his management style, about the kind of governor he is and maybe about the kind of presidential candidate he might be?
MR. DICKERSON: It’s a great question. We didn’t really learn much because we have – we have to take his word for it. He said, I don’t run an office where this would be tolerated. And yet, how could it have happened, because any of us who’ve worked for people know where the lines are. So we don’t really know, and that’s what worries those who want to support him, which is if future evidence comes out, what’s it going to tell us about the culture of his office?
MS. IFILL: Well, that wasn’t the only minor/major political explosion you’ve heard this week. The other one involved the coming publication of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” Robert Gates expresses anger, frustration, and admiration for the people he worked for and no small measure of introspection about his own role in two administrations. But much of the debate arose among people who have not actually read the book, which doesn’t hit the shelves until Tuesday. Peter Baker has, and he says, wait, there’s more.
MR. BAKER: There is. Actually, it’s a very interesting book. It’s 600 pages. It’s not easily reduced to sound bites and a single headline, and, yet, of course, that’s what we do in Washington. We give you a screaming headline, Gates blasts Obama, Gates blasts Biden.
Does he criticize them? Yes, there are criticisms. Gates, of course, is the only defense secretary ever to serve two different presidents of different parties, holdover from George Bush. He’s a Republican, so, surprisingly, he doesn’t view Democrats quite the same way as he does Republicans.
However, he’s also critical of President Bush on some things and he’s very complimentary on President Obama on others. So it’s a much more nuanced and textured book than a lot of readers might have the impression. But as John cleverly wrote, some of the few sound bites have been weaponized already in Washington’s little war of sound bites and back and forth.
MS. IFILL: I haven’t read the book, but I read the excerpt or the op-ed that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in which his main target seems to be Congress.
MR. BAKER: He hates Congress, I mean, with a passion. I mean, it’s really interesting. He talks about these moments where he’s sitting there, testifying, and you kind of wish to see the thought bubble now, right, because he’s very measured, and he’s very impressive, yes, senator, of course, is what we view; of course, it’s a good question, senator. But inside, he’s thinking, I want to get out of here. I’m going to rip this, you know, microphone off and run out for the hills because these people are idiots.
And it’s interesting that you learn this about this controlled, respected bipartisan figure that deep inside, unknown to the public, he is – to use his own words, seething about the world around him. He was at war with Congress. He was at war with the White House. And he was at war with his own Pentagon at times. And he says, I detested being secretary of defense.
MR. O’KEEFE: This is almost a cathartic exercise it seems. You know, he’s unloading eight presidencies’ worth of material in 600 pages.
MR. BAKER: That’s right.
MR. O’KEEFE: We heard a lot about what he said about Obama and about the vice president. What did we learn about him?
MR. BAKER: Right. I think we learned that he doesn’t much care for the way Washington works today, that very culture that John talked about, where people look for ways of grabbing on to something and taking it as an anvil to their opponents is just distasteful to him, that it’s superficial, that it’s not sophisticated.
It’s interesting because in the old days when he was at Reagan’s White House and in the CIA, was director of the CIA under the first Bush, we thought of him as a Cold Warrior. In fact, he was such a known Cold Warrior that when Gorbachev met him and was supposed to introduce him, Gorbachev said, oh, I know who you are, and wouldn’t shake his hand, right? Today, we see him as a moderate figure, a more pragmatic figure. He was fighting against Cheney in the latter part of the Bush administration. He didn’t want to go to war in Libya when Obama took out Gadhafi. And so his own evolution over time has been fascinating from an ideological figure in the old days to this modern, pragmatic, centrist figure.
MR. DICKERSON: Peter, you’ve studied President Bush and President Obama closer than anyone. What do you take – so this must have been a delight in a sense to see him talk about these two presidents. What were the differences and similarities between the two?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. He does actually see some similarities. He says both presidents were decent men. He likes both presidents. Both of them were genuine in their emotional caring for the troops that they were sending into war. He said neither one of them was all that good at engaging Congress. But he favored Bush a little bit more than Obama – again, a Republican. He saw Bush as being very principled in his leadership of Iraq in the end, when he was pushing the surge against all popular wins.
MS. IFILL: But is there any difference between working for the last two years of a two-president and the first two years of a –
MR. BAKER: Exactly. And he acknowledges this. By the time he gets there, as he puts it, all the hard decisions have been in the Bush administration except for the surge. As he puts it, Bush has made his historical bed and was going to lie in it. And the top political types like Karl Rove are gone. When he gets to the Obama administration, it’s a new presidency. The political people are much more prevalent than he was used to in the Bush White House. They still had a re-elect ahead of them. And I think he found that politics, that suffusion of domestic politics always in the room to be stultifying and frustrating.
MS. REINHARD: How has the White House responded to some of the more stinging allegations?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s interesting. You know, their official response, as Jay Carney was shown on the video, was to say, look, we enjoy, you know, robust and candid conversation. But the one thing they pushed back on was the line about Biden. Memorably, Bob Gates says that Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy decision for the last 40 years – a very tough thing to say. He actually says other nice things about Biden as well and the two of them were actually on the same side on some of these things, he admits. But that’s the one thing the White House pushed back on. Not only do they say that the vice president is a great statesman. They made sure to have the photographers come in to take pictures of their weekly lunch for the first time in the five years of this administration.
MS. IFILL: I have to say that they’re both sitting at the ends of a big table with no food on it. This lunch just doesn’t look like any fun to me. Thank you. There has to be food.
So the Senate has decided it’s generally a good idea to extend unemployment benefits. The House Republican leader says he’s concerned as well, and the Department of Labor reported today more people than ever are just giving up on finding work. So what exactly is the holdup in extending a helping government hand, Ed?
MR. O’KEEFE: Election year politics to put it simply. I think they’re – believe it or no.
MS. IFILL: No, you don’t say.
MR. O’KEEFE: Believe it or not. You know, the Senate reconvened Monday to start a new year. There was a lot of curiosity about whether this bipartisan proposal to extend unemployment benefits for three months could get across the first Senate procedural hurdle.
All indications were going into Tuesday morning it was going to be defeated and Democrats were quickly going to be able to label Republicans as insensitive. But, suddenly, during that vote, enough Republican support showed up because there were enough Republican senators who said, you know what? I want to at least talk about the possibility of doing this and finding a way to pay for it. For the first time, congressional Republicans said, if we’re going to continue to extend these benefits, we’ve got to pay for them. It’s a $6.5 billion price tag on this. Democrats turned around and said, we’ve done this nearly a dozen times since the downturn began in 2008. We never pay for it. Why suddenly are you looking to do this?
Came Thursday, when the bill had sort of matriculated enough and Republican proposals had been put on the table. There were things like, predictably, delaying the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, something that’s been there before; a few different job training proposals that Republicans in the House have passed and that Republican senators are very eager to take up, and a few other proposals.
But what I think amounts now to his boldest and really most stubborn power grab, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just said, no. We’re not going to do it. He literally pulled it from the floor, stood in the way, and Republicans were shell-shocked I think at the way he behaved.
MS. REINHARD: What’s the political context for this debate? It’s 2014 now; the midterms are upon us. How does that influence what’s going on?
MR. O’KEEFE: Democrats really see an opening to begin discussing – I know you’re going to talk a little bit about this – but really see an opening to begin talking about these issues, the idea that the economy is improving but there are still so many Americans who are suffering. And I think on this one, as crassly political as it sounds, there are people suffering and they want to be seen as helping them and hope to set up Republicans as looking as insensitive and not helping them. And so that plays out.
I really think that that vote Tuesday morning to advance this really shocked Democrats because they expected this was going to go as scheduled. Republicans would say, no, and they’d get to spend the rest of the week, you know, berating them for not doing this. But, instead, it scrambled their schedule. Next week was supposed to be a focus on the minimum wage. Well, now they’re going to have to continue this fight into next week and they might actually have to come to an agreement and give Republicans some credit for doing this.
MR. DICKERSON: And there’s also a landscape – the political landscape this year is kind of tough for Democrats.
MR. O’KEEFE: It is. It is. And that’s why you’ve seen Democrats who are in difficult re-election races really seize on this. Kay Hagen of North Carolina is a great example. She not only was fighting Republicans in Washington, but fighting Republicans in North Carolina who had scaled back North Carolina workers’ ability to get these funds. And so she was fighting two wars in part because her lead Republican opponent is the House speaker of the North Carolina legislature.
MR. BAKER: Talking about the Senate of course, there’s still a bicameral legislature. Even if they got it through, it would go to the House controlled by Republicans, who have been skeptical as well. And they make the argument, right, that this is supposed to be an emergency program, not continued during a recovery. So what’s the prospect if it actually got out of the Senate?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, you know, if the six Republicans who have been working with Democrats get something by early next week and it is legitimately paid for in the eyes of fiscal conservatives, it’s going to be very difficult for House Republicans to say no.
John Boehner almost dodged questions about this on Tuesday from reporters. And as he started to walk away from the microphone, reporters smartly asked him again. And he very clearly came back and made clear, look, we are concerned with those who are having a difficult time trying to find a job. He was reading from talking points that had been sent to every Republicans saying we have to demonstrate that we have concern even if we’re being principled and trying to find a way to pay for this.
MS. IFILL: Did those concerns build after a day like today, when the jobs numbers came out and confounded every economist who thought that it would be north of 200,000 jobs added. Instead, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 jobs added, and it’s because people are despairing that they’ll never find a job?
MR. O’KEEFE: That is why I believe we’re going to see some kind of a deal because there was good news and there was bad news in these numbers for everyone. Of these six Republicans, especially, for example, Rob Portman of Ohio, who in 2016 will face a very difficult re-election and is already thinking about it, made clear all week long, I am concerned about the long-term unemployed. Well, now there’s more of them. So if he stands in the way of doing this, he’s going back on his word, which was to do this.
At the same time, Democrats – you know, they’re trying to celebrate an economic recovery but clearly these numbers showed there’s a problem so they have to demonstrate they’re doing something as well.
MS. IFILL: So you think a deal could be in the offing?
MR. O’KEEFE: Everyone suggests that through this weekend we may see something by Monday or Tuesday.
MS. IFILL: Oh, edge of my seat. Cannot wait. (Laughter.) So let’s take a longer view about income inequality.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: (From tape.) This administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
MS. IFILL: Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson uttered those words, Democrats and Republicans are debating whether that war was ever won and what to do about it now.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From tape.) We have to focus on policies that help our economy create those jobs and policies that help people overcome the obstacles between them and those jobs. The war on poverty accomplished neither of these two things.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) It’s one thing to say we should help more Americans get ahead, but talk is cheap. We’ve got to actually make sure that we do it.
MS. IFILL: Now, all right, everybody at this table, we’ve all covered entire campaigns where the word poverty never comes up. So who is the audience for these exhortations at this moment in time, Beth?
MS. REINHARD: Right. It is really unusual to see especially Republicans talking about poverty. But don’t assume that’s because they’re trying to communicate with poor people. I mean, the audience is actually much broader than that. And that’s because this is really about an empathy gap that the Republican Party is dealing with, not the income gap. By empathy gap, I mean there’s a view among a lot of folks that the Republican Party needs to try to reach to win national elections, that the party is too extreme, doesn’t care, is intolerant, and the Republican Party needs to try to bring some of those people into the tent – some minorities, women. They want to see more of a focus on helping people than what they’re seeing.
MS. IFILL: Somewhere Karl Rove is saying, didn’t I say all this before with George W. Bush?
MS. REINHARD: Right. You don’t hear the word compassionate conservatism, but that certainly seems to be the ultimate goal is that they would like to be seen as more compassionate.
One of the most striking findings in the exit polls from the 2012 election was when asked about what’s most important to you in a president, folks who said, I want a president who cares about people like me, 81 percent of those people voted for President Obama.
MR. DICKERSON: And the polling now shows the Republicans are way behind Democrats when you ask that question generally. We saw Marco Rubio talk about this. Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee in 2012 talks about it a little bit, but is this a really – are they outliers? I mean, do we see a whole thrust of the party or are these just some voices in it?
MS. REINHARD: Right. Yeah. That’s a good point. I mean, these are prominent Republicans, Republicans that we’re expecting to run for president perhaps, but it’s not House Speaker John Boehner. It’s not the chairman of the Republican Party.
MS. IFILL: Eric Cantor a little bit, right?
MS. REINHARD: Eric Cantor, who is – yes, he’s – you know, he does have leadership positions, but there definitely isn’t a consensus in the Republican Party that they need to get behind this. In fact, I would argue that among a lot of parts of the Republican Party, there’s more of a war on the poor than there is on poverty, and, you know, demonizing people who need government assistance. And, you know, you’re seeing that in the unemployment benefits, in the debate over food stamps. In the debate over minimum wage there’s a lot of talk about, you know, pull yourself up by the bootstraps. We don’t want to encourage a culture of dependency. So there’s definitely a wide number of opinions in the Republican Party.
MR. BAKER: I think Gwen mentioned that we don’t really hear the word “poverty” mentioned in very many campaigns. You know, there was Bush’s compassionate conservatism. There’s John Edwards and the two Americas, but there’s really something as a bipartisan code of silence in effect. What do the turnout numbers tell us about why that is?
MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, it’s – the truth is that poor people vote in smaller numbers. And I think that it’s fair to say that that is one of the reasons those issues are not addressed. If you look at turnout from the 2012 election, I mean, there’s dozens of percentage points separate folks who are making, say, under $40,000 and folks who are making six-figure salaries so really big difference. And so, as you know, these campaigns are focused a lot in the suburbs, and middle class areas, and swing districts. And urban areas, rural areas with a lot of poor people, frankly, get ignored.
MR. O’KEEFE: Real quick. Senator Rubio boldly gave that speech in the room named for Lyndon Johnson on Capitol Hill, but did he or has anyone else really given a specific proposal of something they’d like to do to fight poverty?
MS. IFILL: Yeah. They talk about income mobility but –
MR. O’KEEFE: But they don’t really give any specifics, do they?
MS. REINHARD: Right. I mean, the most specific Senator Rubio got was he talked about a flex fund, the term for taking the federal aid and turning it all over to the states, which, of course, is a – you know, sort of popular concept in the Republican Party that the federal government should be doing less and states should be doing more. He also talked about what sounded like a wage subsidy for low-income folks.
MS. IFILL: But that’s about – but that’s about all that he got to specifically.
MS. REINHARD: Right.
MS. IFILL: So we’ll be waiting to see if this continues to be an argument for the rest of the year. Thank you. Thank you all very much. We have to leave you for now, but – and this is a good news – the conversation continues online. We’ll tackle all the topics we didn’t get to, including the farm bill, the plan to overhaul the nation’s spy programs, on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” That streams like at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if that’s not enough, you can join me online next Thursday at noon for my monthly “Washington Week” web chat – first of the year, your questions, my answers. That’s at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the PBS “NewsHour” with me and Judy Woodruff. And we’ll see you here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.